Michelle Miller is building a 21st century labor movement that uses digital organizing methodology to give voice and shift power to workers.
The New Idea
The power of organized labor in America has been in steady decline since the 1980s, in large part a result of the deliberate dismantling of unions that continues to this day. Not surprisingly, during this same period, despite worker productivity rising 74 percent, median income for Americans has stagnated. Now as technology transforms employment at exponential rates, rising inequality and poor working conditions are likely to worsen unless workers have more voice in shaping their workplace.
After a decade working in labor organizing, Michelle founded Coworker.org as a digital civic infrastructure that helps workers engage their employers, address job problems, and advance solutions as changemakers. The core of the idea is to spark and advance effective workplace democracy that ultimately reduces inequality – using technology and the internet as tools for mass participation and collective action. The how-tos are centered around investing in the capacity of workers to participate in driving better business decisions – including everything from more tolerant workplace environments to pay raises – and then leveraging patterns and victories to inform broader policy. The mass organizing potential of the web is merged with the training, expertise, data and feedback loops that Michelle and her team can provide.
Coworker.org began creating prototypes to support worker-led change in 2013, and since then more than 700,000 people working in food service, retail, technology, and gig/contract industries in more than 30 countries have used the network – including major campaigns at Starbucks, American Airlines, Google, Publix and more.
Old frameworks that provided for workers’ voices, information, influence, and protection no longer serve most jobs. Labor protection systems are structured by country, but multinational corporations shape working conditions across borders through franchises and software-controlled, disaggregated supply chains. In the U.S., new employment structures and government directions mean regulatory agencies can’t or won’t enforce standards to ensure access to collective bargaining, unemployment insurance, health and safety protections, and more. Meanwhile, labor unions have been drastically weakened, and generally rely on an exclusive representation model that doesn’t fit most workers. In the end, for most people, the experience of work in the U.S. is essentially an authoritarian regime.
What’s more, innovation and investment in the future of work has been primarily focused on the interests of corporate owners, such as lowering costs, increasing efficiency, surveilling, expanding markets, and reducing liability. Together with the decline of organized labor, these forces leave workers more vulnerable and isolated than ever and contribute to an American inequality crisis that has reached a boiling point and that lies at the heart of innumerous societal ills.
The broad strategy for Coworker.org is to facilitate the space, the network, and the expertise that enables more democratic decision-making within the modern workplace to the benefit of workers. This manifests itself in three complementary strategies: (1) build a critical (and growing) mass of workers who campaign for workplace improvements in a highly visible way and (2) invest in the leadership of individuals and groups of employees by providing education and training, strategic support, data analysis, and workplace advocacy tools and (3) grow a broader ecosystem that advances a healthier future of work.
Coworker.org was designed to make it as easy as possible for any worker, anywhere to take action to improve working conditions and wages. The fundamental guiding premise is that workers should have a voice in determining workplace policies – what Michelle and others refer to as “workplace democracy.” That voice can take many forms – informal employee committees, company-wide surveys, Coworker.org peer networks and petitions, collective bargaining, worker-ownership. In just a few clicks, any employee can launch a campaign. Coworker.org provides the infrastructure to do so, and importantly, the expertise, guidance, data analysis and public visibility to do so effectively. A quick glance at the website reveals its most recent campaign in early 2019: an AMC Theatres hourly worker advocating for overtime and holiday pay, who unlike salaried managers, are excluded from such benefits by the National Labor Relations Act. And there are hundreds more.
There are number of design principles that make Coworker.org stand out and strategic. First, its openness and relevance to the needs of today: Workers in any industry and any position can take initiative, including those in the growing (and disconnected) “gig economy”. And those needs are often unique – how do you bargain with an algorithm that plays the role of a manager? Or how do you develop policies for a workplace that lacks a physical space? Second, its network aggregation power: In an economy when most people in large company never see more than 5 percent of coworkers, the use of the internet exponentially increases the ability of an employee to reach thousands of others and collaborate toward shared goals. Coworker.org is like a massive digital version of the workplace cafeteria. Third, its commitment to grassroots, worker-led change: Coworker.org emphasizes peer-to-peer connections and experimentation, then feeding back learning and victories into the worker changemaker community. Rather than technology, Michelle is most concerned with methodology: the methodology of providing direct support to groups of people acting in solidarity in issues they care about. And finally: a smart use of media to bring broad public attention to campaigns and the worker leaders championing them.
The list of worker-led victories is long and impressive. Tens of thousands of Starbucks workers have used Coworker.org to expand paid family leave, update its scheduling technology, and allow employees to have visible tattoos. Thousands of Uber drivers, meanwhile, joined together and persuaded the rideshare company to include an in-app tipping feature – a decision that translates into millions of dollars of aggregate income for drivers. REI committed to a wage increase for employees and is also posting worker schedules further in advance. Wells Fargo announced that it will eliminate product sales goals after employees reported that they faced unreasonable pressure to meet the bank’s excessive sales targets. Each of these victories and more lead to significant improvements for employees across the U.S. But together they also signal something significant: that workers can and will advocate for themselves, that they are gaining confidence and expertise in how to do so in today’s economy, and that companies would do well to incorporate worker voices earlier and often in their decision-making.
In addition to growing the number and scale of worker-led campaigns, Michelle and her team are working with a broader ecosystem of groups concerned with workers and the future of work. Grassroots worker centers and advocacy groups partner with Coworker.org to reach new communities and test new strategies. Michelle offer workers a conduit to share their insights with reporters, academics, labor leaders, business innovators, philanthropists, social impact investors, and policymakers. Coworker.org invests in research on the digitization of society and has led participatory research projects, published papers on worker power, and presented at major events. They advise labor groups around the world, foundations and social impact investors, and government agencies. Coworker.org co-hosted a national town hall on worker voice with then-President Obama, and has briefed members of Congress and congressional staff on the impact of mass data collection, artificial intelligence, and the growth of platform monopolies. They help workers link to other efforts for equality, civil rights, and healthy, thriving communities; and in turn, enable those organizations to learn from frontline workers.
Depending on how fast Coworker.org and its allies can work, in the next 5-10 years Michelle aims to see millions of people, in independent, informed collectives, taking leadership in their jobs, asserting agency to shape decisions, and thus expanding access to social, community, and cultural benefits from changes brought on by automation and machine learning. This includes reforming labor and employment law given what they are learning from frontline workers and given the new frontiers in our economy. For example: as it becomes increasingly evident how valuable (and monetized) worker-generated data is – e.g. the real-time data generated by millions of shared ride drivers all over the world – legitimate questions should be raised about who owns that data if it’s being produced by workers in their own vehicles and with their own smartphones.
Coworker.org’s metrics for success look at the numbers of people taking leadership for change in the workplace; the scale and success rate of their ideas; the attention to worker perspectives and needs in media, corporate, and government conversations and decisions; and how individuals and groups move along a path of increasing innovation, strength, and success as civic advocates for their community.
Of course, workplace organizing has risks – people need to be able to advocate for positive change without losing their jobs, for one – and using media to connect with peers to stand up for improvements should bring support and not attacks. People who take a stand for equity and justice (especially women, and particularly women of color, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized people) face increased hostility from political movements as well as concerted online harassment. One key area for Coworker.org moving forward is to understand more about the groups and forces that want to undermine human rights efforts and erode the potential for worker-led initiatives, so that it can help workers make progress safely and successfully.
Coworker.org’s budget for 2019 is $1,454,000. It began in 2013 with an annual budget of $200,000, and was able to raise twice that amount from grants and partnerships with other nonprofits in 2014, 2015, and 2016. In 2017, the team expanded the budget again when it opened additional revenue sources for Coworker.org through partnerships with a few funders interested in the potential of organized tech employees as a path to public accountability and ethical product design in the development of technologies shaping culture, economics, and politics. Michelle is keenly aware that civic infrastructure for workers can’t only rely on grants, so over the next 2-4 years she plans to experiment with revenue models that can provide educational, networking, media, legal, and other resources to peer groups of workers, such as mutual aid, shared costs, co-ops, data licensing, and/or contracts with social responsibility investors. She will test to see where there is traction to create sustainable funds for infrastructure that can be shared by hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of workers.
In the summer of 2012, Michelle was asked to meet with workers in large shipping facilities for companies like Amazon and Walmart. They were preparing for a visit from philanthropists, policymakers, and advocates, and needed some quick help with communications and storytelling. The workers she met told me that the hours were long and backbreaking but the pay was marginally better than what they’d get at fast food or retail. They talked about freezing in the winter and passing out in the summer heat. Skipping bathroom and food breaks. Hiding injuries. But they also described the transformation they’d experienced since they became leaders in the fledgling group called Warehouse Workers for Justice, where they were learning how to change the conditions they were describing. One man, Marcus, said his efforts to organize his workplace made him more interested in the world around him, in local politics, in economics and his community, than he’d ever been before. He was inspired by the sense of solidarity he felt with coworkers but wondered how he might take that home to his friends and family.
Michelle was asked to help because of the work she had done for years in the labor movement, recording and shaping the stories of members into documentary film, art, or curricula that would help other workers learn from their experiences. She met the warehouse workers in an old electrical workers’ union hall, where a faded labor history mural peeked out behind filing cabinets. The basement boasted a large meeting room/dancefloor, a darkened kitchen, and abandoned bar. Being in that space humbled her: We had been here before, she thought.
The hall also represented what could happen when working people have a mechanism to come together and have the agency to determine their futures. They share it back, creating community, connection, and celebration. As a child of the West Virginia coalfields, this felt like home to Michelle. Her grandmother, a miner’s widow who survived on her husband’s Black Lung benefits, reminded her daily that we must care for each other. Her mother and grandmother raised her in a community of women, aunts, friends, elders, and cousins, who knew that survival was a collective endeavor.
All this informed her decision to create Coworker.org with her co-founder Jess Kutch. Her years spent with workers who shared their visions and hopes, as well as their descriptions of the ingenious and generous ways they support one another, led her to this point. And as Michelle says, “I know how to do this work because they taught me how. My responsibility is to share it back and help us all do a little better.”